It’s an easy comparison to make.
Ben Simmons is a teenage basketball phenom with frontcourt size and backcourt skills. He has the entire triple-double arsenal and the ability to dominate a game in a variety ways, but it’s clear his weapon of choice is the pinpoint pass.
Barring a major trade or a Laremy Tunsil-like incident, Simmons is going from Louisiana State University to a formerly successful but currently sorry NBA franchise with the No. 1 (or No. 2) pick in Thursday’s draft. He will make that trek with a lucrative Nike contract in hand, and the hopes of a proud sports city on his shoulders.
Clearly, Ben Simmons is the closest thing to LeBron James that the NBA has seen since LeBron entered the league 13 years ago.
(Photo Credit: USA Today)
Or, Ben Simmons isn’t that at all.
Or, Ben Simmons is less like LeBron James and more like Lamar Odom.
That is also an easy comparison to make.
Simmons is a left-handed 6-foot-10 power forward who can play at least two other positions on the court. He is a capable scorer with greater shooting range than a traditional four, but his most valuable skills are his rebounding, ball-handling and passing. In his first and only season of college basketball, he displayed the talent of a future NBA All-Star.
While Simmons’ track record might not show evidence suggesting he is that rare superstar who carries a franchise on his back, his game is tailor-made for him to be a versatile key ingredient on a championship team.
The difference in the two comparisons is that instead of simply saying Ben Simmons is the next Lamar Odom, the optimistic basketball analyst would rather say that Ben Simmons can be what Lamar Odom was supposed to be.
They would say that Simmons has the potential to realize the potential once seen in Odom.
Off the court, there are a lot of parallels between Simmons and LeBron.
On the court, Simmons’ game is a reflection of Odom.
Off the court, Simmons is marketable and media-friendly. The 19-year-old from Australia has already signed with LeBron’s agent, Rich Paul, from the Cleveland-based Klutch Sports Group. LeBron himself said recently that he has been a mentor to Simmons.
(Photo Credit: USA Today)
If he handles his business, Simmons can grow his personal brand and business portfolio and, like LeBron, become an athlete-slash-mogul in his own right with mainstream crossover appeal.
Provided that, of course, he produces on the court. Which is where the similarities to LeBron are fewer than you may have heard about.
Simmons averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 0.8 blocks per game as a freshman at LSU.
Odom averaged 17.6 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 0.8 steals and 1.5 blocks as a freshman at Rhode Island.
Simmons can score, but he’s not a scorer. At LSU, he had more games in which he grabbed 10 or more rebounds (23) than games in which he scored 20 or more points (18). The one time he posted enough rebounds and assists to register a triple-double, he only scored four points – and that was in an overtime contest against NC State.
Simmons scored 11 points in his first game for the Tigers and 10 points in his last game. He attempted a grand total of three three-pointers in college, making one of them.
Does that sound like LeBron, who has averaged 27.2 points per game as a pro (fifth-highest scoring average in NBA history) and has never not averaged at least 20 points per game?
Or does it sound more like Odom, who had two NBA seasons in which he averaged 10 or more rebounds and zero seasons in which he averaged 20 or more points?
Odom also averaged 2.2 three-point attempts per game in his NBA career, making 31 percent of those tries. LeBron chucks up 4.0 threes per game, making 34 percent.
Odom could handle the ball like a guard and pass the ball better than most forwards in the league throughout his 14-year career that ended in 2013. As a full-time starter early on, he was good for about four or five assists per game (averaging a career-high 5.9 dimes with the L.A. Clippers in his third season).
As a part-time starter and regular sixth man later on – including when he won two NBA championships with the L.A. Lakers while playing the best basketball of his career – Odom was good for about three assists while putting up double-doubles in points and rebounds.
It’s not just the numbers. It’s also the style.
Odom was a good athlete with a polished skill set and a high basketball IQ. LeBron is a once-in-a-generation athlete with a polished skill set and a high basketball IQ. On the athleticism scale, Simmons is closer to good than once-in-a-generation. He is strong and fast, smooth and nimble, but he’s not quite explosive.
Simmons is dynamic on the court. LeBron is dynamite.
LeBron is a forward with a perimeter-based style who plays like a guard. Simmons is a forward with an inside-out style who plays like a forward. That was how Odom played.
Simmons, like Odom, is a player that you can run your offense through. LeBron is a player who can run your offense.
But there is a reason why anyone rooting for Ben Simmons hopes he is not a replay of Lamar Odom but instead a remix.
Odom had All-Star talent – perhaps even Hall of Fame talent – but he never made an All-Star team and won’t make the Hall of Fame in part because he continued to get in his own way.
In the minefield of weed and women, alcohol and avarice, bad influences and bad advice that every young celebrity must navigate, Odom took too many missteps. It earned him league suspensions and team-issued exiles. It got him benched and it got him traded.
Odom did enjoy a period of time when he was a mainstream celebrity and a household name in abodes where they wouldn’t know a pick-and-roll from a flea-flicker. He was an athlete-slash-mogul in his own right, with a TV show, a clothing line, a record label and even a fragrance to call his own.
But those missteps in that minefield cost him most of that. And it ultimately led to a near-death experience less than a year ago, almost ending his life and absolutely ending any chance he had of playing in the NBA again. (Odom was reportedly considering a comeback before a near-fatal overdose at a Nevada brothel in 2015.)
Can Ben Simmons avoid that kind of path?
Whether Simmons ultimately has a pro basketball career resembling LeBron or Lamar is now up to him.
The talent is there. The potential is clear. The next move is his to make. And it’s not going to be easy.